Our favorite pick for January 2020.
Carolina de Robertis
Gay women don’t get works of literary fiction. Andre Aciman, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood—the list of men who write about gay men and get published is not only substantial, it’s luminary, award-winning even if it’s not, say, the book club’s cup of tea. Queer women don’t get the press, particularly not fiction that goes beyond mere representation and into the realm of reality. Novels about queer women rarely ring with authenticity, that ache of being nearly nowhere, caught between privileges and stories, the eeking out an existence through the forbearance of others.
This profound literary absence is what Carolina De Robertis’ Cantoras succeeds in filling, centering her novel around five queer women who are surviving, growing, and loving under the Uruguayan dictatorship of 1976. Though the novel traces their lives and friendship over the course of thirty-five years, it is fitting that the novel begins during an era of oppression, embodying the fear and claustrophobia of being in the closet in a cultural and physical superstructure that can be understood by any reader, regardless of their background.
De Robertis drops us into the story on the first page, letting the reader join her five protagonists as they escape the noose of Montevideo for a weekend of freedom on the beach, putting the stifling atmosphere of curfewed streets behind them. They leave the city a few days after one of their own, Romina, has just been released from government custody because of her ties with the Communist Party. When she resurfaces, as so many prisoners did not under the military’s regime, her best friend and former lover Flaca suggests they celebrate her return by gathering up all of the queer women they know to get away and be themselves for a few days, under the sun and out in the open.
Having a place of their own was a radical idea during a time when women didn’t travel unaccompanied and homosexuality could get you killed, but the women jump at the chance, spending the next week in a haze of heady disbelief at their good fortune to be with people like them outside the reach of censorship and soldiers’ gazes, in “a circle of the possible.”
Each woman has her own story to tell; Flaca, a butch known for philandering with lovers and profound loyalty with friends, Romina, the passionate and traumatized activist, La Venus, a spoiled and sensuous femme trapped in a bad marriage, Paz, a sixteen-year-old longing for community and loves of her own, Malena, mysterious and withdrawn, full of a history she can’t bring herself to share. De Robertis gives each of their voices a chance to shine, letting the reader into their private and collective worlds in a way that does sumptuous justice to queer women and their communities, and which, to queer women, will read with hilarity, bitterness, and eerie familiarity.
Their time away brings revelation and revolution with it, burgeoning their individual desires to know themselves and one another with deeper clarity. In their short time outside the junta’s cage they create “a kind of family, woven from the castoffs, like a quilt made form strips of leftover fabric no one wanted. They wanted each other.” This unconditional acceptance alters their interior landscapes, and when it comes time to return to the city they leave bolstered by their companionship, prepared to do whatever it takes to live as freely as they can within a society that was designed to brutalize and reject them.
Reality sets in quickly. New lovers are taken, husbands fall by the wayside, homes are purchased, and more of the women disappear into the government’s abyss and return again, spat out of the beast with another layer of trauma and dread. What holds fast through these peaks and pitfalls is their love for one another, and the fierce loyalty that they share for the queer spaces that have sustained them. They begin an underground queer bar in Montevideo, trading shifts and making sure that none of their people go without a place to call their own, and over time their chosen family grows, a canopy of safety for gay people throughout the city.
Throughout the novel De Robertis’ commitment to conveying the reality of queer women doesn’t falter, and she clearly knows the world of queer women well, from the snarled relationship triangles to the fear of the closet and the glory of lesbian sex, and she doesn’t hesitate to make each character’s story arc as poignant as the portrayal of their lives. This doesn’t always result in a happy ending, but it does allow a rare window into the truths of queer women who love and fight fiercely, and who, above all, survive through shared strength and love.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.